Originally appeared in Foreign Policy.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, high priest of American letters and patron saint of homebodies everywhere, reserved his harshest words for the voyager. Travel, he famously wrote, “is a fool’s paradise,” a sickness that afflicts those who don’t realize that wisdom is inward. Instead of broadening the mind, travel narrows it.
If Emerson is correct, my mind must be so narrow by now that I could fit my head through a standard-size letter slot. I have measured out my adult life in passport pages, acquiring stamps from most countries that exist and several that do not. I have written about dozens of them, and each time I produce what one might call “travel writing,” I can hear Ralph Waldo sneering that I’d be better off saving my plane fare.
Travel, of course, has its uses. The travel writer at his best is a sort of prophet, reporting realities abroad that don’t register at home until sometimes much later. Travel writing is a way of seeing the world through the eyes of one who has the time and luxury to look at it directly, rather than through the distortions of propagandists and wishful thinkers. In 1974, when Paul Theroux traveled through Iran on the journey that produced The Great Railway Bazaar, he found the country loaded with howling religious crazies — a truer prerevolutionary portrait, he later pointed out, than the one offered by the patronizing scolds on the payroll of the Shah, who disputed his account and claimed Tehran was a reliable U.S. friend with an inexhaustible appetite for Western military hardware. And when the travel writer is not prophesying our futures, he is recording pasts we never knew. Patrick Leigh Fermor, who wrote with 40 years’ hindsight about a trip across Europe as a teen, underestimated the Nazi menace when he was bumping steins with the SS in the Hofbräuhaus. But his depiction of the frail monarchies of Eastern Europe, on the verge of being crushed into dust by the twin juggernauts of Nazism and communism, is the best we will ever have.
But we are now at a low tide in the powers of travel writing. Travel has changed, and with it so has travel writing, overwhelmingly for the worse. An epidemic of Internet-age frivolity is doing its best to prove the Sage of Concord right: Call it Emerson’s revenge. Where travelers once brought back invaluable stolen glances at places that the rest of us could only guess about, the new breed combines the worst of the traveler and the worst of the homebody. The writer goes overseas but brings back news about a tedious inner crisis, leaving undisturbed any insights about the places visited. Eat, Pray, Love — to take only the easiest target as an example — is a whole memoir premised on the notion that even the most decadent, boring, and conventional kinds of travel somehow heal the soul and can turn a suburban ninny into a Herodotus or a Basho.
The simplest reason for this catastrophic turn is that it is easier than ever to travel, and not at all easier to write well. In 1955, Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote that travel is “an unavoidable drawback” of acquainting oneself with the world: “There are hours of inaction … and always the thousand and one dreary tasks which eat away the days to no purpose…. The truths which we seek so far afield only become valid when they have been separated from this dross.” The good news for travelers is that these inconveniences are disappearing. The bad news for readers is that those inconveniences are the very stuff that concentrates the mind and transmutes narcissism into something approaching insight.
With travel so easy, the ability to prophesy in a valuable way on the strength of a quick impression looks more and more to be a dying art, like guessing weights at a carnival. When V.S. Naipaul, a deft practitioner of this art on several continents, visited Iran soon after its 1979 revolution, the society was even more closed than it is today, and stolen moments among the mullahs were rare and precious. The effect of his writing is astonishing, even if you object to his scorn for Islam. Unlike contemporary writers, who cast away pearls of time and experience in order to spend more time with themselves, Naipaul treats them with the value they deserve. Few of his scenes last more than a page or two, and yet the details — a guide’s haughtiness, a mullah’s laugh, a snippet of government radio — accrete to reveal the roots of revolution and the likelihood that its principles would be rapidly betrayed. These small elements fit neatly together, with not a whiff of triviality, and the net effect is like looking through a high-powered microscope and enjoying an exquisite but fleeting view.
Nowadays, reports of Qom and other previously arcane hideaways are more numerous, and yet our views far less exquisite. Naipaul had set out to travel among “converted peoples“; we could argue about the sense in which Iranians are “converted” in any meaningful way, but what matters is that the goal — a deep engagement with Islam — was profound enough to sustain 300 pages of meditation, humor, and observation. And when Theroux traveled during the 1970s and 80s, he focused intensely on how the human and physical geography of the Earth changed underfoot. The focus was the place, and the insight came from the focus.
Contrast this with Road Fever, the high-speed travelogue of Tim Cahill, about his crossing of the globe longitudinally, from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska, in a month. What Cahill describes is certainly an adventure, and amusing in the extreme. But it is a book whose purpose in going places is to leave them, and whose ability to comment wisely on the politics of a place is limited by the author’s need to get in and out without wrecking his vehicle or being waylaid. Cahill published his book in 1991, an inflection point in the political history of Latin America, when the Sandinista era was ending in Nicaragua, political violence was waning in Guatemala, and Colombia was reaching one of several gory moments in its perennial drug wars. From his book we learn little about any of these, and it is difficult to imagine that sort of indifference — in favor of careful attention to corporate sponsors and spare automotive parts — in any serious writer of an earlier era.
Of course, the great pitfall of all travel writing is the confusion of one’s own experience for the experience of all. Edward Said criticized Naipaul along Emersonian lines, writing that “What he sees he sees because it happens before him and, more important, because it confirms what, except for an occasional eye-catching detail, he already knows.” Theroux’s 2004 Africa travelogue, Dark Star Safari, takes as one of its primary claims that immigration is impoverishing Africa by draining the continent of its human capital. He points to the elite, educated Malawian youngsters who have fled to jobs in London, Las Vegas, and Omaha, and the medical school graduates in Zimbabwe who want nothing more than to work somewhere where they are paid in a currency that is not so devalued that it is also used as gauze. Certainly an exodus is afoot. But the issue is not simple. I was in Harare the same year Theroux passed through, and bookstores were selling out of medical and engineering textbooks. For every Zimbabwean who escaped to practice in London, how many were poring over these texts, aspiring to leave but having to stay home? The effects of immigration are multiple and complex, and beyond the analysis of anyone who bases his opinions merely on what he sees. These are faults that even careful attention cannot correct because they are inherent to travel writing, and correctable only when one stops writing travel books and for once stays put.
This, I think, is a flaw in the genre. But it is not fatal, and it doesn’t mean the generation of widely roaming travel writers is finished. Many know that a plane ticket is no guarantee of wisdom and that what one sees on arrival is both more and less than the full story. I eagerly await the next book by Jeffrey Tayler (chronicler of Siberia and Africa) or Alice Albinia (the Indus river valley), and will wager with confidence that lovers of the old greats will recognize worthy heirs in them. But writing about the world is passing into an era in which the cutting observation of a Grand Tour traveler (like Mark Twain in The Innocents Abroad) or footloose Orientalist (Robert Byron in The Road to Oxiana, or Nicolas Bouvier in L’usage du monde) looks more and more pallid compared with the richness of one who has stayed put in one city and slow-cooked his fare: William Dalrymple in Delhi, say, or Peter Hessler in China, both of whom stayed so long in their chosen places that their writing no longer counts as travel. The sun is setting on the Age of Innocents, and not a moment too soon.